It’s the worst-kept secret in English football that Chelsea need to trim their squad down ahead of next season, and with Mateo Kovacic entering the final 18 months of his contract, the Croatian looks likely to be one of the first out the door. But with Premier League champions Manchester City sounding out their interest in the 29-year-old, it has thrown up an age-old dilemma for Chelsea fans, just how good is Kovacic?
Ever since his arrival on loan from Real Madrid in 2018, Kovacic has divided opinion. His driving runs and close control in tight areas have, at times, almost single-handedly aided Chelsea in the transition. But there’s a feeling amongst the Stamford Bridge faithful that he lacks the necessary skill and guile in both boxes to ever truly dominate a midfield at the highest level.
With N’Golo Kante’s fitness issues an ever-present problem during Kovacic’s time at the club, it was often left to him and the now departed Jorginho to provide both defensive nouse and attacking incision in equal measure. But with neither player truly excelling in either discipline, many fans became disillusioned, as they struggled to see what the pair offered except high ball retention numbers – Chelsea averaged almost 70% possession with Kovacic and Jorginho in the side during Tuchel’s first months in charge.
Now this can be viewed as an oversimplification of Kovacic’s impact. He has shown in spurts the type of player he can be – a full-blooded, technically proficient midfielder with a penchant for the spectacular in front of goal. But again, the feeling amongst Chelsea fans is that when the going gets tough, he’s not the type of personality to dig his heels in and drag a team out of the mire.
Chelsea, this season aside, where it has been tumultuous from the get-go, have consistently followed a downward trajectory in the league from November onwards. This a trend that has befallen every manager from the hapless Frank Lampard to serial winner Thomas Tuchel. It’s, therefore, not a case of coincidence but of character within the squad, of which Kovacic is one of the more senior voices.
If rumours are to be believed, then Kovacic is being eyed up as a replacement for club captain Ilkay Gundogan – A player whose success at Manchester City is predicated on his ability to turn up in the big moments and deliver. Whether that’s scoring a brace in the FA Cup final or netting 11 goals in 12 games to change the tide of the title race in 2021, Gundogan is the man for the big occasion, and Kovacic will have big shoes to fill if he is to come in to replace his output.
There is also the possibility that Kovacic’s ability with the ball under pressure is seen as the perfect antidote to Bernardo Silva’s potential departure. But regardless, what worries Chelsea fans most is the knowledge that City don’t tend to get their transfers wrong, and with Pep Guardiola at the helm, there is almost certainly a plan in place to get the best out of him.
By: Sam Tabuteau / @TabuteauS
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / James Gill – Danehouse / Getty Images